Scientists and Industry Agree on Importance of Water Monitoring

MYTH: Oil sands production is doing damage to area lakes.

FACT: Levels of pollutants in oil sands-region lakes are around the same levels as other area lakes and lower than lakes in urban areas. There is no evidence such a low level of pollution affects the lake’s health or viability.

A study by researchers at Queen’s University in Ontario released Monday finds that oil sands operations may be the source of increasing levels of chemicals found in Albertan lakes. By examining sediment layers in six lakes close to Fort McMurray, researchers determined a baseline for measurements of pollutants associated with bitumen and found that over time, the potential pollutants have risen along with increased oil sands activity.

According to the study, concentrations of what is known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are on the rise, but that the levels are within the range of other remote lakes, and comparable to lakes in more urban areas. The authors also admit that they have been unable to find evidence of any negative impact on species inhabiting the lakes. And with one exception, the levels do not exceed government guidelines.

Back in October, another group of researchers from the University of Waterloo conducted a similar study, but came to very different conclusions. The scientists did find high levels of PAHs in lakes 125 miles away from any oil sands operations – significantly further from the furthest lake studied by Queen’s, 56 miles out. However, after establishing a historical baseline of their own, the Waterloo scientists found that PAH levels were either negligible or constant over the past 300 years. Interestingly, the study estimates that between 5,000 and 9,000 tons of naturally occurring bitumen enters the Athabasca River Basin during every flooding season.

So who is right? As with any scientific study, we’re faced with an old-fashioned contradiction based on differing study models and baseline metrics, and no clear winner. But what is clear is that the industry does not take these findings lightly, and is consistently – and proactively – improving its environmental footprint.

Back in 2010, the Royal Society of Canada (similar to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences) commissioned an expert panel of scientists to assess, among other things, the impact of the oil sands on regional water supply. The panel concluded that:

 “Current evidence on water quality impacts on the Athabasca River system suggests that oil sands development activities are not a current threat to aquatic ecosystem viability.”

In addition to assessing and improving water monitoring, the industry also uses water responsibly. Oil sands producers recycle 80-95 percent of the water they use. In the case of Devon Energy’s Jackfish operation, the in situ development required doesn’t use any water suitable for human consumption or agriculture for steam generation.

According to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the oil sands industry supports improved water monitoring and encourages the Alberta and federal governments to continue to collaborate on a joint oil sands monitoring program. In the long run, efficient operations, coupled with advanced water monitoring and usage, will ensure that the environment is not a compromise for production.

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